Twelve years after cleanup, DDT still poisons harbor
on December 14, 2009
An onshore wind blew off San Francisco Bay and across a small fishing pier, where two men cast their lines into the waters of the Richmond Inner Harbor. To the south and west, they took in sweeping views of the bay, with Brooks Island just in front of them and the San Francisco skyline as backdrop. Directly behind them lay the industrial maze of shipping channels and railroad terminals that make up the Inner Harbor, one of California’s largest-volume shipping ports.
Robert Parker and Archie Hall, avid fishermen who are both AC Transit bus drivers, were spending their day off trying out new fishing poles.
“A lot of the time, it’s just for sport. But if you catch a medium-size halibut, he’s going home,” said Parker, 40, a lifelong resident of Richmond.
Parker says he only eats about five fish caught from the bay each year because he knows that many contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants.
But eating fish caught from the Inner Harbor area may be particularly risky.
Long-banned pesticides — primarily DDT and dieldrin — still poison these waterways, even though the company that processed them has been bankrupt for over 40 years.
Twelve years ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency removed sediment containing three tons of DDT from the site. But since then, repeated sampling of water, sediment and fish has found pesticide concentrations that could be harmful to the environment and to human health. Fifteen acres of marine sediment and five upland acres in the Inner Harbor remain a federal Superfund site.
Cleanup goal not met
“At the five-year review, we said it’s clear we haven’t met our cleanup goal,” said Sharon Lin, the EPA’s current project manager for the United Heckathorn Superfund site. “We did not achieve the remedy because we did not fully understand the contamination.”
The EPA is currently determining the need for a new cleanup plan, with a decision due in late 2010.
Fisherman Parker had no idea that there is a DDT-contaminated Superfund site less than a mile from where he cast his line. He’s not alone.
Dr. Jonathan Chevrier, who has extensively studied human exposure to DDT, said he had never heard of the site, just a few freeway exits from his job at UC Berkeley.
“I was really surprised . . . We tend to think that exposure to DDT and DDE is not a problem in the U.S. anymore,” said Dr. Chevrier, a post-doctoral scholar in epidemiology at Berkeley’s School of Public Health.
Torm Nompraseurt, a community organizer for the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), worked with the EPA at the time of the original cleanup to educate local Laotians about the dangers of eating pesticide-contaminated fish. Before receiving inquiries from Richmond Confidential, Nompraseurt did not know that the site was still contaminated either.
Even at the time of the original cleanup, Nompraseurt said his group had a hard time getting people to stop fishing. (The California Department of Public Health warns that adults should eat no more than two fish per month caught anywhere in the San Francisco Bay.) He said people were skeptical that the fish could be toxic, since they were still alive to be caught. Some even thought the warnings were a capitalist conspiracy to get them to patronize markets. Perhaps more important, Nompraseurt said the fishing custom is a matter of economic survival.
“In a poor community, you don’t fish for fun. I know that,” said Nompraseurt, who came to Richmond as a Laotian refugee in 1975.
“In the Laotian community, from what I know, every single household goes fishing,” he added. “Our folk eat three times more than the state advisory. If you look at that in terms of risk, that means our folk have three times more risk.”
From industrial boom to toxic bust
United Heckathorn began formulating pesticides in 1947, back when Richmond was thriving from the industries that World War II brought. Most of those industries and jobs are now gone, but their legacy lives on in the pollution that they left behind.
United Heckathorn shut down all operations in 1966 and the site was abandoned, just a few years after the 1962 release of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s seminal work revealing the dangers of DDT. The pesticide was banned in the United States in 1972. It has since been banned in much of the world but it is still used in several African and Asian countries to protect people from malaria.
In 1980, the California Department of Health Services detected chlorinated pesticides and metals in soil samples from the United Heckathorn site, which they were inspecting as a part of their abandoned sites project. Five acres of land and about 15 acres of underwater sediment were designated a state Superfund site. The federal EPA took over in 1990 and put the site on the National Priority List, an inventory of hazardous waste sites that qualify for long-term cleanup financing under the Superfund law.
In the mid-1990s, subcontractors poured a concrete cap over four and a half acres of the land portion of the site — just south of Cutting Boulevard, extending to the Santa Fe Channel — and dredged about three tons of DDT from the Lauritzen and Parr canals.
The EPA’s 2008 fish sampling revealed that DDT concentrations in fish caught in the Lauritzen Canal ranged from 526 to 11,000 parts per billion. The EPA is aiming for DDT concentrations no higher than 5,000 parts per billion, to meet the limit set by the Food and Drug Administration.
Dangers of DDT
Researchers, including Dr. Chevrier at UC Berkeley, have found that consuming DDT may cause serious health problems. Scientists believe that most human DDT exposure occurs through consumption of contaminated food, Chevrier said.
Dr. Chevrier coauthored the Pine River Statement, a report synthesizing data from 494 papers about the human health consequences of DDT exposure, published in Environmental Health Perspectives this September.
It summarized original research correlating DDT measurements in blood levels with a range of health effects, including various cancers and damage to endocrine, neurological, and reproductive systems. The data show that children and pregnant women and their fetuses may be particularly vulnerable.
Even without knowing the actual levels of DDT in individual Richmond residents, Dr. Chevrier said, “For these people that are eating fish everyday, I would be concerned…based on what I know about levels of DDT.”
EPA still investigating
Sharon Lin, the EPA’s current project manager for the United Heckathorn site, worries that the chronic nature of DDT-related health conditions make people apathetic about the potential risks.
“When you have an acute health problem, it’s easier to communicate . . . People just get more angry about it,” Lin said.
Lin said that she wants to upgrade the existing fishing advisory and again get the word out to the community about the risks of eating fish from the harbor area. She added that community education and press coverage created public concern surrounding the initial cleanup project. That helped spur the agency to clean up the site quickly. Lin estimated that least 75 percent of the contamination was removed in the first cleanup, but this time around, there hasn’t been the same public outcry surrounding the remaining pollution.
“The initial cleanup decision from when we listed the site [was] in 1990 and then we did the cleanup in 1996, and that’s really speedy for EPA,” Lin said. “There [was] an urgency from the community to take the waste out and we felt compelled to respond.”
However, the persisting contamination may be partially a consequence of the quick cleanup.
Lin said that the cleanup crew was also somewhat derailed by unexpectedly finding 187 tons of salvage metals — presumably from the scrap metal yard adjacent to the site — that had to be removed.
“We did the best that we could. We were trying to find out what’s causing the high levels of contamination in the channels,” she said. “This time, we’re taking the time and we’re trying to do it right.”
In more recent years, the EPA has collected additional mussel tissue, water, and sediment samples, and has looked into a leaking storm drain to further examine the extent and potential sources of the contamination.
The EPA is currently preparing a focused feasibility study, which will reassess the risk to human and ecological health. Lin said she plans to have a decision on whether to require additional site cleanup by late 2010.
A right to fish?
Robert Knowles, District Nine regional representative for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said that while it’s important to remove the contaminated materials, it is also crucial that people heed the state’s warnings against eating local fish.
The California Department of Public Health warns that adults should eat no more than two fish per month caught anywhere in the San Francisco Bay.
“[The EPA] can do all those things, but it will take years for them to remove all the DDT in fish because it accumulates in them over time,” Knowles said. “So the only way to prevent exposure is to educate people about the contamination.”
However, some worry that the message is not getting through. Michael Kent, the Contra Costa County Hazardous Materials ombudsman, has worked with the EPA to educate local fishermen about the risks of eating harbor fish.
“I’ve gone down to the pier and talked to fishermen, and you get guys that just kind of laugh at you,” Kent said. “I’m not saying that’s reflective of everyone…but they’ve been eating fish for a long time and they might not be feeling the health effects.”
Some people, though, might not be getting the message at all. Kent said that his department has posted various warning signs near the Harbor Way fishing pier, but the warnings have been vandalized or stolen. He said his department hasn’t worked on the United Heckathorn site since 2004, when it last attempted to post a sign.
But with or without signs, Torm Nompraseurt, the Laotian organizer, said he’s angry that the Inner Harbor is still polluted over a decade after the major cleanup. He worries about the people who have been unknowingly eating pesticide-laden fish.
“Sometimes, putting a sign up doesn’t mean anything, unless you talk face-to-face about the impact of the chemicals,” Nompraseurt said.
“The state can’t control folks’ cultural consumption and the way of life,” he said, emphasizing that in the economic downturn, having the option to subsist on fish is even more important.
“That’s why we’re still fighting. People should have a right to fish.”
Click for Richmond Confidential’s original coverage of the United Heckathorn story.
Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.